Former TRIGA Reactor gains ANS National Historic Landmark status


Susan Mumm, Editor

Former TRIGA Reactor gains ANS National Historic Landmark status


Former TRIGA Reactor, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
Former TRIGA Reactor, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

In a lifetime spanning 38 years, the former TRIGA Reactor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign left a profound impact on nuclear engineering research and education. That impact now has been officially recognized with the American Nuclear Society’s recent designation of TRIGA as a National Historic Landmark.


“The Advanced Illinois TRIGA Reactor was a real asset to our educational and research programs,” said Jim Stubbins, NPRE Department Head and Willett Professor in the College of Engineering. “Generations of NPRE students were able to enjoy the unique experience of operating and experimenting with our TRIGA Reactor. Our TRIGA was really unique since many of the features were designed by our faculty to provide major experimental and operational features not available with other TRIGA Reactors.


Pulse of the TRIGA.
Pulse of the TRIGA.

“I continue to appreciate the value that our TRIGA Reactor provided to our students, our research programs, and our community,” Stubbins continued. “This award goes beyond the recognition of a major research facility – it is a fitting testament to the ingenuity and vision of the faculty who founded and grew our NPRE program. Their pursuit of excellence in teaching and research and the facilities that support those missions is the guiding principal for all of us who followed them.”


Nominating the TRIGA Reactor for landmark designation was Emeritus Prof. George H. Miley, who performed some of the groundbreaking research that led to the facility’s significance.


NPRE Prof. Marvin Wyman in the TRIGA control room.
NPRE Prof. Marvin Wyman in the TRIGA control room.

“The existence of the new TRIGA reactor with its unique pulsing and dynamic capability was an important factor that convinced me to join the (Nuclear Engineering) faculty in 1961,” Miley said. “Indeed it worked out that I was able to do considerable research that was enabled by having the TRIGA on campus. Thus I was saddened when it was decommissioned, but I am elated that it will now be a National Nuclear Landmark. That is truly a well-deserved recognition for what was an amazing teaching and research facility.”


TRIGA, officially known as the University of Illinois Advanced Teaching Research Isotope General Atomic (TRIGA Mark II) Reactor, has been cited for “educating students in reactor operations,” and for “groundbreaking research in the areas of fission fragment physics, nuclear pumped lasers, nuclear batteries, neutron activation analysis, radioisotope production, nuclear reactor kinetics, coupled core kinetics, and neutron pulse propagation.”


Nuclear Reactor Building on the Urbana campus. The TRIGA and building were completely dismanted in 2012.
Nuclear Reactor Building on the Urbana campus. The TRIGA and building were completely dismanted in 2012.

The former reactor now joins other important facilities and sites – including the High Flux Isotope Reactor at Oak Ridge National Laboratory (2014), the Gaithersburg, Maryland-based National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) Center for Neutron Research (2013) and the Atomic Energy of Canada Limited’s (AECL) Zero Energy Deuterium 2 (ZED-2) research reactor (2010) – that ANS has identified and memorialized for being instrumental in the advancement and implementation of nuclear technology and the peaceful uses of nuclear energy.


This official recognition will take place during the Honors and Awards President’s Special Session, 4:30-6:30 p.m., Monday, November 9, at the ANS 2015 Winter Meeting, at the Marriott Wardman Park Hotel in Washington, D.C.

NPRE will host a breakfast reception the following morning (Tuesday, November 10) at the hotel, and the designation will be among reasons for alumni and friends to celebrate. (Register for breakfast reception.)

The Department also will host a celebration on the Urbana campus in Spring 2016. More details will be forthcoming as they are finalized. Plans are underway to house a pictorial display of the TRIGA in Talbot Laboratory, as well as establish a permanent marker near the site of the former facility. As such, alumni and friends are urged to send to NPRE their memories and photos of the TRIGA. While written accounts are welcome, NPRE particularly encourages alumni and/or friends to share their stories by video. Contact Susan Mumm at s-mummatillinois [dot] edu to participate.


Alumni touring the TRIGA during NPRE
Alumni touring the TRIGA during NPRE's 50th Anniversary celebration in 2008.

TRIGA went critical on August 16, 1960. The reactor was extremely popular; being used primarily for the training of students in nuclear engineering, but also as an interdisciplinary facility, with the Departments of Chemistry and Chemical Engineering, Physiology and Biophysics, Physics and various other engineering departments all competing for time with the facility.


A generation of nuclear engineering students at Illinois were privileged to have participated in research projects, laboratory studies, and operating experiences. Scores of nuclear industry reactor operators trained on the facility, and thousands of visitors touring the TRIGA learned first-hand about the importance of nuclear energy. A number of students entering the nuclear engineering program at Illinois were influenced by their tours of TRIGA, which was a popular stopping point during Engineering Open House.

Administrative decisions led to TRIGA’s shuttering in 1998, and fuel removal in 2004. The dismantlement of the remaining portions of the reactor and Nuclear Reactor Building on the Urbana campus were completed in 2012.

TRIGA accounted for many “firsts” in the annals of nuclear engineering:

  • The second TRIGA on a university campus, the facility initially offered the highest power pulsing capability (30-40ms pulses of 1,000 megawatts, with a 100kW licensed steady operating power).
  • The addition of a cooling tower a few years after the facility’s commissioning allowed an increase in steady-state operation to 1 MW. This, combined with the internal core flux trap, allowed the highest steady-state neutron flux operation of a university TRIGA.
  • In 1968, the University approved upgrading the reactor and increasing its steady peak power to 1.5 or more, while making it capable of pulsing up to 6,000 megawatts.
  • TRIGA was equipped with a “through port” that passed by the end of the reactor core and penetrated the shield of the opposite sides. This later allowed important studies of nuclear pumped lasers, since beam alignment was enabled.
  • TRIGA provided access to a central core pump trap (enabling experiment requiring high neutron fluxes during either steady state or pulsing) and a “rabbit tube” passing through the core to provide rapid insertion and removal of samples for irradiation studies.
  • A graphite thermal column led from the TRIGA core into the “bulk shielding tank,” a large water tank located next to the main TRIGA water tank. This enabled studies of both steady state and pulsed neutron studies of objects located in the bulk shielding tank. Most notable was the Low Power Reactor Assembly (LOPRA) reactor core. This facility allowed a series of coupled core reactor experiments that provided basic data for large power reactor kinetics.